Art exhibitions serve an especially useful purpose if they revise our assumptions and rewrite established narratives, correcting for new information, shifting valuations, fresh polemical agendas, and the mysteries of shared taste. Without a foundational intellectual restlessness, an exhibition can turn into a starchy program. Take, for instance, the bold-face version of Mexican modernism, which puts at the center los tres grandes, the trinity of male muralists composed of Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and José David Alfaro Siquieros. Smaller orbs such as Frida Kahlo and Rufino Tamayo circle those stars. If only it were that schematic. In the turbulent years following the 1910 revolution and subsequent civil war, Mexico produced many good artists engaged in a variety of practices, and for the past 40 years they have had as their caretaker the Argentinian-born collector Andrés Blaisten, who has made it his mission to acquire thousands of works, now housed in the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México Centro Cultural in Tlatelolco, that configure a more finely articulated, synoptic version of Mexican modernism. Eighty paintings from the collection are on view at the San Diego Museum of Art in a lively exhibition, Mexican Modern Painting.
The narrative running though the Blaisten version of Mexican art is a push-pull dynamic between internationalist inflections and Mexican-ness, mexicanidad. Of the major presences, Rivera spent a long time in Paris absorbing cubist technique, Siquieros spent three years in Europe and later traveled to New York (and was, for a time, Jackson Pollock’s teacher), and Orozco lived in the USA from 1927 to 1934. Their work could readily speak in European and North American idioms, but its material was the folkloric, mythy ways of mexicanidad. Traveling far, they remained natives to their place.
It’s the other painters in Mexican Modern Painting that rouse interest. Most Mexican art in the first half of the century had a political context, and much of it manifests the sometimes agonizing political transitions the country was enduring. I knew nothing about the Open-Air Schools, for instance, until I saw the exhibition, yet they were as consequential for post-revolutionary national consciousness as the muralist moment. In 1921, the new president Álvaro Obregón appointed José Vasconcelos minister of public education. Vasconcelos wanted to propagate revolutionary values — land reform, indigenous identity, egalitarianism — by means of art education. He not only sponsored the first murals, with their splashy-severe vision of a politically reimagined Mexico, he also wanted to nurture an entire nation of artists. To achieve this, he established art schools in semirural areas around Mexico City. The Open-Air Schools welcomed farmers, children, and workers, encouraging a simple, “primitivist” style. The schools urged people to paint the world they knew, its physical types, its landscapes and lore. They produced, as you might expect, plentiful pictures of campesinos, of the female as maternal or infantilized type, and of village life with its open markets and ceremonies, the weddings, communal chores, and ritual dances. They produced not only Ramón Cano Manilla’s Siesta, a local-color treatment of the ancient dream of a terrestrial paradise (two peons linger in hammocks beneath the blessings of palm trees) but also a parable of the new Mexico, Gabriel Fernández Ledesma’s Industrial Landscape, where a smokestack exhaling effluvia rises among mountains and where both natural and constructed forms are depicted in fine-scored, mineral earth tones.
Few of these artists, however, can be slotted in one or another historical classification, especially because so many of the pictures they made are some variant of mestizaje, a blending of Europe and the New World, Spanish and native. Fermín Revueltas was formed at the Open-Air Schools, and his sultry Bathers from 1927 derives from the familiar motif worked so hard by Cézanne, Matisse, and other Europeans, but he situates his dark, smoky nudes in a smothering florid setting. And his primal Dance of the Deer — the horned flames burning under pots are repeated in antlers worn by the dancers — may look formally Europeanized but it’s the painterly equivalent of magic: it enacts in subject and treatment a threshold experience, the rite of passage when an animal spirit enters a man and overtakes his nature. And while Revueltas in his own way devoted himself to mexicanidad, he also associated himself with the modernist, revolutionary fervor of estridentismo, a movement that started noisily around 1921. Like its Italian counterpart, Futurism, estridentismo was excitably exclusionary. Its manifesto declared: “Those who are not with us will be eaten by vultures.” To avoid becoming cuddly carrion, it envisioned an urban utopia that would break with tradition, celebrate technology, and defy social norms. Amador Lugo (another artist trained in the Open Air Schools and preoccupied, like so many of his peers, with social realities) made a picture, Fire in the Colonia de los Doctores, that catches the urban horror of an out-of-control fire. The scene is populated with ambulance drivers, firefighters, and that recently minted “new citizen,” the city crowd, hundreds of anonymous bodies crowding balconies, rooftops, and sidewalks, triangulating into a deep, unforeseeable distance.
Mexican Modern Painting prickles with surprises. One of its revelations, to me at least, is Manuel González Serrano. His 1948 Apprentice Bullfighters conflates different chunks of Mexican life into a complex, ambiguous scene. In the background stands a corrida ring (it looks like an ancient colosseum) as well as an industrial site of a building under construction. Between them, in a mess of city rubble, boys with red capes practice their untutored passes against a hobby-horse bull’s head that’s an impoverished memory of a more mythic and terrifying soul-presence. González Serrano was a case. Largely self-taught, he seemed almost too at ease with the irrationalities encouraged by the Surrealists. He spent periods of time in mental institutions, went for long stretches without working, and died of a heart attack at 43. His distressed Self-Portrait squirms with fleshy, doomed ardor. And the slinky, vulval bird-of-paradise plant in his still life, Equilibrium, looks carnivorous.
Equilibrium is one of several pictures in the exhibition that recall Italian Metaphysical art, a prototype for Surrealism famously practiced by Giorgio De Chirico, whose mystifying objects and scenes — classical statuary, banana bunches, manikins, far-off trestles and trains, dread-inducing piazzas — frequently haunt the precincts of early 20th-century Mexican art. When Surrealism’s supreme chief, André Breton, visited Mexico in 1938 (to visit Trotsky in exile) he declared it an incomparably surrealist country. But long before Breton’s visit Mexican artists were nationalizing Surrealism by trading on casual, matter-of-fact bizarre-ness. The “uncanny” so prized by the surrealists ran in mexicanidad’s bloodstream. See María Izquierdo’s The Racquet, where an unnerving assortment of objects — megaphone, carnival mask, clothing brush, cigarettes — is deployed on a table before a deep-set window framing a dark and stormy night. It’s a tropical rethinking of Magritte’s fever-dream arrangements of everyday realities. Carlos Orozco Romero’s Dream from 1940 is a swooning reimagining of a De Chirico landscape. And Roberto Montenegro’s stiffly comic First Lady theatricalizes the slippage between peasant and aristocratic reality. I love the vinegar-puss dame’s venomous stare — she’s staring at us.